The Picture Book: Using Word Count as a Revision Tool
The last couple of days have been a whirl of productivity for me. And, you know, the good kind–where you’re actually happy-ish with the work.
Short story: I chopped the picture book in half.
Long story (Because you know I never use just the short story):
Like I said on Monday, I’ve got a couple of events coming down the line that will give me a chance to get the picture book critiqued. I’ve known all along that it had way too many words (anywhere between 700 and 900, depending on which draft you opened up). I was okay with that, because I know that I am good at cutting and trimming and sharpening, turning a long scene or story into a much shorter one. It’s not a natural talent–I developed it over the three years I worked as a closed-captioner, taking TV and movie dialogue and editing it down to a specific word-per-minute reading rate. Anyway, I knew I could do it, so I wasn’t worrying about doing it…yet.
Until these critiques reared their heads. Because what was the point of submitting a picture book that I knew was too long. That’d be the first thing the critiquer told me, maybe even the only thing. Which would be a total waste. Plus, for one of the critiques, I only get to submit the first 300 words. Before I started this revision, 300 words barely got the reader past the opening.
So I cut. I didn’t take a red pencil and mark up the words I had. Instead, I opened a new file and only typed in the words I thought I could keep. Note I did not say “the words I needed.” Because, honestly, I really didn’t feel like I knew which those were yet. And, yes, I played as I went and moved things around and fiddled with the story . By the end of the day I had a draft that was just over 600 words, with red placeholders where I knew I need something different from what I had. I was still feeling pretty muddled and not confident about what those something-differents might be, but I was pretty happy with that 600+ word-count. I figured that, give or take a very few, this was the number of words I had to work with.
What did I do next? What I always do when I’m trying to learn about a genre–I went to the experts. I hauled a stack of my favorite picture books over to the couch, and I read. I let myself reread some of the older ones, from my childhood–Millions of Cats, Choo Choo, The Story about Ping, but I knew that was more play than work–yes, they’re wonderful, but they don’t have the low word-count or the story form I was looking for.
- What were the heroes’ goals?
- In what way did the heroes actively try to reach those goals?
- What were the obstacles to the heroes’ attempts?
- What words (and how few) did the authors use to show these story pieces?
- What words (and, again, how few) did the authors use to increase tension across the story?
- What information did the authors include and what did they choose to leave out?
These are all questions I have been struggling with in the picture book. Questions that I had been trying to answer by writing and fiddling with too many words. As I read Linda and Bonnie’s books, I did get the starts of some thoughts about how to do it differently, thoughts I played with yesterday. I think the most important thing I got, though, was a reminder that this can be done. A good, strong, funny, what-next, complete story can be written with a very small number of words. And when it’s done well, it’s magic.
I’m not saying yet that I can do it. I’m not Linda Urban, and I’m not Bonny Becker. What I am, though, especially since yesterday–when I got new story ideas, cut more words and added some better ones, strengthened characters, and got my husband to say he could “see the illustrator having fun with this”—is a writer committed anew to this genre and to wanting to find my place in its market.
And did I mention, a writer who finally has a picture-book draft that feels like it might be getting there and that is…wait for it: under 500 words?